From the discussion "History & Poetry" during the 2009 Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on October 17, 2009, in New York City.


Ed Hirsch: The poet wants justice, and the poet wants art. In poetry, you don't actually get one without the other. In the writing of history, or in political essays, you might get one without the other. You might get: "I'm just writing this to get social justice, and there's a certain sort of polemic in what I'm writing to get justice for the people that I believe were suffering."

But in poetry, you don't get that. In poetry, you also get Jeremiah, writing in a certain form, using every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in a certain kind of way. You don't have justice without art through poetry. It is the nature of poetry, that it has to be a dual commitment to both things. And that's what you're talking about: the formal elements that operate. Which is different from, say, journalism.

Rita Dove: Right. I mean, with poetry... this is not about—well, it is history. We'll talk about political poetry, since you brought it up. But, I think in America, we're really terrified of the term "political poetry." We think, "Oh that means bad poetry; political poetry has a purpose." But the first thing a poem has to be is good—it's got to knock your socks off. And I say art wins out every time, though justice is contained in art, and so I don't think of it as a conflict.

But a poem that can be used for political persuasion, if it's a good poem, is going to stand up regardless. If it's just for political persuasion—it's not a poem. It's a piece that moves you. It could be well-orated, it could be a beautiful speech, it could be a political diatribe, or it could be a piece of really well-written propaganda, which can also be an art form. But, if it does not at some level really love every syllable and think of every syllable that it shapes, and that becomes part of its making, then it's not a poem.